by N. Alexander
‘When will Putin learn?’ It is a question now once again asked after the alleged poisoning of Russian politician and anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny. Russian commentators from Navalny’s inner circle, social media news-brokers, as well as Western governments and journalists, lost no time in identifying ‘the perp’ as Russian President Vladimir Putin. After all, is not Navalny ‘the man Vladimir Putin fears most’?
Although German doctors treating Navalny claim to have found traces of a ‘Novichok’-type agent in his system, there is still no conclusive evidence presented publicly, nor is there any viable clue about who Navalny was poisoned by, or why. In such a situation, one would do well to hold out on judgement and to ignore one’s gut feeling. However, the opposite is true. Indeed, why look for certainty, when we already know the answer?
While the theory of Putin’s involvement in the poisoning of his political opponent fits snugly with the flurry of accusations levelled at the Kremlin over the years, a lethal attack against Navalny, in particular, is both unnecessary and harmful to the Russian government. Setting aside the fact that as a method, political assassinations have been employed widely (including by governments which profess the highest of democratic values) such an interpretation fails to take into account both the pattern of Putin’s risk-taking when making political choices, and the level of threat Alexei Navalny actually presents to the Russian President personally, as well as to the political establishment as a whole. This discussion seeks to point to some of the discrepancies which separate the abstractly possible from the eminently probable.
‘No Pain, no Gain’: Putin and Political Risks
Over the years Vladimir Putin amply demonstrated his ability to take risks. However, equally demonstrable is the fact that such risks, with the cost they inevitably carry, also have the potential to bring about enormous dividends. The case of Crimea demonstrates this vividly.
The acquisition of Crimea (unification or annexation, depending on one’s political perspective) carried with it the inevitable risk of an outcry by Russia’s international opponents and antagonists, as well as a high probability of sanctions. Yet manifest as well were the dividends. Crimea might not be of major economic benefit, it might not have oil reserves or uranium deposits, but it is a cultural-ideological ‘trophy’ in a country which puts premium value on history as the bearer of national pride. For a Russian, regardless of personal political views or aspirations, Crimea carries immense historic, ethnic, and national value, and is perceived almost as an element of national identity. For a political leader, the return of Crimea is a manifestation of politics of strength within the context of a historical vision, it is a message of defiance of external pressures in a country particularly sensitive to cultural and political penetration from the outside. In short, Crimea is the example par excellence of Vladimir Putin accepting risks for a particular profit: international outcry for domestic approval, and national sacrifices for his own great Russian vision.
By contrast, the Navalny affair currently unfolding carries no gains, no promises, nor any dividends whatsoever. Putin, his inner circle, ‘the Kremlin’, the ruling elite as a whole gain nothing from Navalny’s potential martyrdom. In fact, they have much to lose from it. Vague and unproven accusations levelled at Russia are already accompanied by threats of sanctions and demands for Russia to open its military research to NATO inspectors.
The Navalny phenomenon
As an anti-corruption blogger, Navalny rose to prominence rather quickly, capitalising on the PR value of high-profile exposés. His investigations, published online for a broad audience, were read widely for years, both by critics of the system and those who, while generally loyal, were critical or suspicious of particular elements of the new ruling elite. Navalny has managed very successfully to give concrete examples to otherwise anecdotal rumours of abuses critics of the system were spreading for years. However, the mere fact of selective dissatisfaction with aspects of the system is not enough to produce active opposition in Russian society. Put plainly, the average Russian citizen can still be loyal to the system and a believer therein, and at the same time find elements to criticise and even resist against. This is one of several key reasons why Navalny’s message has not proven powerful enough to dent the government’s powerbase significantly.
Navalny’s anti-corruption campaign seemed for a time to be the stuff political stars are made of. He has indeed risen from a humble blogger to an organiser of what is seen in the West as mass protests in opposition to the government. Two things, however, have to be pointed out.
First, ‘mass’ is a relative term, and even tens of thousands of city dwellers in a major centre of European Russia are not necessarily representative of a much larger electorate which is generally politically conservative in its outlook. Second, protests, even sizeable ones, although indicative of political awareness, are not evidence of a prominent or permanent change of political perception, as evidenced in the consistently high levels of Vladimir Putin’s popularity. Putin’s approval ratings over the years, even at their lowest, have stayed well above the 50% mark, consistently dwarfing those of even the most prominent Western politicians.
The ineffectiveness of Navalny’s particular brand of activism in augmenting his political capital lies ultimately in its structure. His anti-corruption approach is not unlike that of Putin himself early on in his Presidency when dealing with the oligarchical elite of the 1990s. Like Putin, Navalny consistently focused on high-profile individuals from the socio-political elite, while leaving largely untouched the broader culture of corruption in Russian institutions. The targets of his investigations were prominent enough to generate hype and gossip, but this did not translate into nation-wide opposition. This is because, on the perceptional level, the corruption of the upper strata of a political elite is a given among those who are eager to criticise the political and social status quo. Meaning, Navalny’s main powerbase speaks more to those Russians who are already part of an opposition, rather than attracting a multitude of new political ‘converts’. Furthermore, on the practical level, the exposition of high-level corruption, while excellent headlines material, has little direct effect on the daily life of a population which is harmed much more frequently and harshly by corruption at the lower levels of social organisation – local administration, low-level dispute resolution, police, etc.
In short, while Navalny’s anti-corruption activity has made him well-known as an activist, it has not been enough to make him a political force to appeal widely on a national level, and thus be reckoned with.
Navalny did manage to gather a significant percentage of the vote for mayor of Moscow in the 2013 election. However, it is improbable that his attempts to run for President would have been successful even had they not been thwarted. While a timely conviction and disqualified him from a presidential run in 2018 as an independent candidate, he was not able to gather the necessary signatures to formally register in the first place. Even the 700,000 potential voters he reported as pledged would not have been enough to push him ahead if he was not disqualified.
Since then, Navalny’s political influence has seen a moderate rise on the regional level, where he has sought to ally himself with other opposition parties and groups in order to diminish the dominant influence of United Russia candidates, for example, in the elections for Governor of the St Petersburg region. Yet there is little to suggest that his influence nation-wide is particularly threatening for Putin’s United Russia party.
Off with his head?
The key question is whether Navalny is dangerous enough for it to be necessary to have him taken off the playing field, quite literally. While moderately influential, he is neither a major force on his own nor the leader that would stir the fragmented Russian opposition to and unite around him.
Previously, the Russian authorities have had little trouble blocking Navalny’s various bids for power. They have done so while maintaining a thin veneer of legality, effectively using the various loopholes of the Russian legal system to keep him in check without it being necessary to harm him to achieve this goal. By contrast, an assassination attempt would only reinforce any message that Navalny is carrying, while a fatal outcome could make him into the martyr Boris Nemtsov could never have been.
The usual suspect?
It is, of course, very easy to point the finger at Putin as the usual suspect. It fits into the easily-marketed image of the Russian autocrat, dangerous, unpredictable, and yet oh so transparently evil. Built on a decades-long tradition of mistrust, it is no surprise that criticism of Russia ‘sells’. Often opportunistically self-serving, it is an easy and palatable interpretation, revived as soon as Russia started gaining back its prominence following the collapse of the USSR and a decade of political, ideological and economic crisis.
Yet the truth, perhaps a sad reflection of the modesty of liberal opposition movements in Russia, is that Alexei Navalny, while a man of purpose and a man of recognition, is not dangerous enough for the Kremlin to seek to assassinate him. Doing so, in fact, would create unnecessary complications internationally while bringing no benefit domestically for a leadership which is going through a period of crisis and increased criticism domestically and internationally.
This discussion seeks to point to some of the discrepancies which separate the abstractly possible from the eminently probable.
It is worth, perhaps, remembering that Alexei Navalny has stepped on many toes over the years. The fact that any enemies he has thus made might be part of the political establishment does not immediately substantiate complicity by the Kremlin, particularly as an attack on Navalny would be both unnecessary and harmful to the President and to the Russian Government as a whole. As such, a variety of possible interpretations present themselves.
At this point, it is difficult to say which of these hold water. The proposition of the Kremlin’s supposed complicity sits very uncomfortably with the lack of a logical justification of such an excessive measure since existing, bloodless alternatives have proven very successful in managing Navalny’s political influence.
Equally implausible is the assumption of a political provocation by the opposition or the West. This has already been aired as a possible scenario by Vyacheslav Volodin, the Chairman of the State Duma, potentially as a rhetorical counter to insinuations in the Western press about government complicity, and to direct threats by the U.S. State Department. Navalny is simply too valuable to both; put bluntly, he is much more valuable alive than dead.
An even more extreme interpretation is that an attack on Navalny is part of a complex coup orchestrated from within government circles seeking to bring Putin down. Dangerously close to a conspiracy theory, this requires extensive corroborating evidence, and possibly also a much more intelligent understanding of the delicate interplay and balance of power in the corridors of the Kremlin.
Perhaps a simpler explanation suggests itself: Navalny’s activism has certainly gained him many powerful enemies, and it is at least as plausible for this attack to be an unsanctioned move for the satisfaction of a personal vendetta. Depending on who the person responsible might be, it is plausible the Kremlin will be forced to save face by covering them up.
Allowing passions, preconceptions, and biases to underpin political opinion, political proclamation, and political resolution has over the past years become more and more the norm. And yet in order to get a more plausible interpretation of events, it is inevitably important to occasionally ask – who benefits?
 This polarising issue has resulted in a large outpour of comment and analysis, mostly extremely partisan on both sides of the spectrum. For a balanced overview and assessment, see Richard Sakwa, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands (London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2015), ch. 5.
 An indicative, if somewhat indirectly related example which demonstrates the general conservatism of Russian society is the much-reported Pussy Riot controversy. Following the arrest of its members after an alternative protest performance in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow in February 2012, widely condemned as sacrilegious, polls conducted reported that about 80% of widely pooled respondents were in favour of a conviction, whether prison terms (37%), forced labour (26%), or a large fine (20%). See Levada Centre, ‘Rossiyane o dele Pussy Riot’ [‘Russians on the Pussy Riot Case’], online at https://www.levada.ru/2012/07/31/rossiyane-o-dele-pussy-riot/.
 Richard Sakwa, Putin: Russia’s Choice (London & New York: Routledge, 2008), pp. 143-150.
 See, for example, Heidi Blake, From Russia with Blood: Putin’s Ruthless Killing Campaign and Secret War on the West (London: William Collins, 2019), and Amy Knight, Orders to Kill: The Putin Regime and Political Murder (Thomas Dunne, 2017). For a more nuanced and balanced recent view, see Richard Sakwa, The Putin Paradox (London & New York: I.B. Tauris, 2020).
 For an overview of the crucial period of the 1990s see Roy A. Medvedev, Post-Soviet Russia: A Journey through the Yeltsin Era (New York & Chichester: Columbia University Press 2000), and Andrew Felkay, Yeltsin’s Russia and the West (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002). For a good overview of the ‘new Cold War’ currently raging, see Richard Sakwa, Russia Against the Rest: The Post-Cold War Crisis of World Order (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 2017).
N. Alexander a historian teaching at King’s College London and a keen observer of Russian politics.